Gardens and Lemons, my feature on the English gardens of Menton, southern France, was commissioned and published by 50 Connect. It was originally commissioned for Viva magazine, which went out of print before the article appeared but used on their 50 Connect website.


Gardens And Lemons


Despite its popularity as a tourist destination the South of France still has some surprises to offer the discerning traveller, as Diane G. Paul discovered.  

For many Brits, a holiday in the South of France means the glitz and razzamatazz of Nice and Cannes, the sophistication of Monaco or the charm of Antibes. But tucked away in the south eastern corner on the Italian border nestles a lesser-known part of the azure coast that is altogether quieter and more refined than its brasher neighbours.

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In the paved area flanked by cafes and shops, a mime draped in white, looks like an immobile marble statue. A Polish guitarist sits in the sun by the fountain playing Aranjuez. The St Michel Basilica, site of the annual Music Festival, looks down solemnly from the hillside while tourists browse the flea market outside the nearby covered market. Inside, typical French vendors stand proudly over their stalls, which are piled high with shining fruit and veg, charcuterie, freshly caught fish, pungent herbs and specialities from the area. Menton was the last part of France to remain in British hands and everywhere British influences can be seen, from the statue of Queen Victoria to some of the street names. William Webb Ellis, who created the game of rugby is buried here.  

This little seaside town, whose population now reaches around 30,000, was popularised by an English doctor, Henry Bennett at the turn of the twentieth century. In Victorian times it was a haven for people who suffered from chest complaints, like New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, whose home is now a study centre for writers. Many celebrities have been drawn to Menton, including Jean Cocteau whose paintings can be seen in the small Cocteau Museum, a l7th century bastion on the harbour. Sheltered by the Alpes-Maritimes in a bay bobbing with yachts, three mediaeval perched villages hover over the town protectively.  

The area is very attractive to older visitors, although at the height of the season it can be noisy here too. Phil Bellanti (55), who moved from London to Nice, considered making Menton his home first. "Winter in Menton is a bit like winter in Hastings. Nice is more like Brighton," he said. "The ex-pat community in Menton is strong but keeps a low profile. It's great there during spring and autumn with many activities and good seafood."  

Just one train stop from the market town of Vintimiglia over the Italian border, where leather goods draw shoppers, and Monaco for more upmarket shopping, Menton is not without its own attractions. A little train takes visitors round the Old Town with its mediaeval houses and narrow streets and through Garavan near the border, where more modern apartments mingle with remains of old Belle Epoque villas overlooking the marina. 

Menton has been voted the best city of flowers in France five times. June is garden month. Eight gardens are open to the public, including the Val Rahmeh botanic garden created by Lord Radcliffe in l905, featuring 700 species of exotic plants and trees, and La Serre de la Madone designed by Major Lawrence Johnston, creator of Hidcote Manor Gardens. In February and March, the Lemon Festival attracts crowds who watch elaborate processions and huge lemon-themed floats. The fragrant smell of mimosa, home grown oranges and lemons from 5,000 citrus trees fills the air.

Englishwoman Elayne Murphy, married a Frenchman and her son and daughter were both born in France. "I wanted to finish my days there and Menton was a good choice because everyone told me I could get a job with an English company in Monaco. As I couldn't afford to live there, we chose Menton instead and it was the best choice ever," she said. Elayne and her second husband, Mike have since moved to their "piece of paradise" near the Isle sur la Sorgue in Provence, about two hours away from Menton. But Elayne still visits her children and grandchildren in Menton regularly . Last year she joined two other English women to launch The Granny Collection, a personalised property search covering Charente-Maritime, Vendee and Provence. Now there are British Grannies in Calvados, Limousin, the Loire and Poitou-Charente too.  

Elayne recently appeared on Channel 4's A Place in the Sun finding property for Brits looking for their dream homes. "Most people accept less than their dream because they believe it beyond reach or beyond their budget. I get people to send me their dream list and I start with that," she said. Elayne's patch includes Menton. "It has a lovely all year round climate, good shopping and a pleasant lifestyle. It's easy to get to Nice airport and on to the main autoroute. Even if you don't have a car, the buses and trains are cheap and regular."

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